The Problem With Romantic Love — and How the Ancient Greeks Can Help Solve Our Dilemma

The Problem With Romantic Love - and How the Ancient Greeks Can Help Solve Our Dilemma

September 6th, 2016

By Carolanne Wright

Contributing writer for Wake Up World

“Grown up, we hope for a re-creation of what it felt like to be ministered to and indulged [as infants and children]. In a secret corner of our mind, we picture a lover who will anticipate our needs, read our hearts, act selflessly and make everything better. It sounds ‘romantic’; yet it is a blueprint for disaster.” ~ Alain de Botton, “The Course of Love”

At first glance, it may appear that writer and philosopher Alain de Botton has an axe to grind regarding romantic love. He seems to believe it’s one of the more foolish ideals we human’s have come to expect — the soulmate, kindred hearts, forever loving the other with an all consuming passion. But before writing him off as embittered, cynical or possessing a supreme lack of imagination, consider the ancient Greek viewpoint on love — which encompasses over thirty different kinds, only one of which could be construed as vaguely romantic.

With a divorce rate hovering between 40-50 percent in the United States, is it time we embrace what the ancients knew long ago?

The Birth of Romantic Love

In the greater scheme of life, romanticism is a relatively new development, dated around the mid-18th century. Up until that point, love was largely looked at as a fringe emotion which wasn’t given much attention. Marriage was based on property or religion, and endured the ups and downs of life for economic reasons. It was essentially a contract between families and nothing more. But all that changed with the first Industrial Revolution, where young people could earn their own money and not have to wait for an inheritance or dowry. Entering into marriage for emotional, rather than financial, reasons was quite a radical idea at the time. In fact, love was mostly seen as a hindrance to marriage for thousands of years, as it was viewed as something that would ultimately cause problems.

With romantic love came the requirement of finding one’s own fulfillment within marriage. “The personal satisfaction that marriage brought to the spouses became very important,” says Elizabeth Abbot, author of A History of Marriage. “Spouses expected their mates to be their primary source of emotional support.”

But are we the better for it? Alain de Botton doesn’t think so — and the ancient Greeks would be surprised to see what we regard as the foundation for love and marriage today.

Seven of the Most Powerful Types of Love

Roman Krznaric, an Australian cultural thinker and author of ‘How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life’, believes we need to reconsider our ideas about romantic relationships. He says the ancient Greeks, who had a sophisticated classification of love, “would have been shocked by our crudeness in using a single word both to whisper “l love you” over a candlelit meal and to casually sign an email “lots of love.”’ He thinks that moving beyond our “current addiction to romantic love” — to an orientation more inline with the ancient Greeks — would help transform our lives for the better.

So what were these different kinds of love known to the Greeks?


Named after the Greek god of fertility, eros (from which the word ‘erotic’ is derived) represents the idea of sexual passion and desire. It wasn’t viewed as something positive, but instead dangerous, fiery and irrational — to the point where you were possessed and lost control.


This kind of love was highly valued by the Greeks because it stood for deep friendship. With philia, you show loyalty to your friends, and don’t hesitate to sacrifice for them, or share your innermost thoughts or emotions.


A playful love, such as the playfulness between children or young lovers. Today, we live out our ludus when laughing and bantering with friends, or when we go dancing.


The love parents have for their children, or a child has for a favorite aunt, uncle or grandparent.


Possibly one of the most radical forms, agape is love extended to all people, regardless of if they’re family or distant strangers. It shows up as “gift love” in Christianity, and metta or loving kindness in Theravada Buddhism. Agape may be the type of love we need most today, especially since empathy levels have plunged nearly 50 percent in the U.S. over the past 40 years, with the steepest decline happening in the last decade.


Resulting in a deep understanding between long-married couples, pragma is a mature love. According to Krznaric: “The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm said that we expend too much energy on “falling in love” and need to learn more how to “stand in love” — which is exactly what pragma is all about.


Otherwise known as self-love, philautia has two types — an unhealthy version linked with narcissism, and the other, which broadens your capacity to love. The healthy kind helps you to like yourself and be secure, so that you will have an abundance of love to share with others.

One Final Thought

Beyond contemplating and appreciating how these different types of love manifest within our lives, Krznaric offers this final piece of advice about modern relationships:

“We should abandon our obsession with perfection. Don’t expect your partner to offer you all the varieties of love, all of the time (with the danger that you may toss aside a partner who fails to live up to your desires). Recognize that a relationship may begin with plenty of eros and playful ludus, then evolve toward embodying more pragma or selfless agape.”

Alain de Botton on Love

Image credit: ‘Eros: Passionate Love’ by BlazingElysium on DeviantArt.

Article sources:

About the author:

Carolanne WrightCarolanne Wright enthusiastically believes if we want to see change in the world, we need to be the change. As a nutritionist, natural foods chef and wellness coach, Carolanne has encouraged others to embrace a healthy lifestyle of organic living, gratefulness and joyful orientation for over 13 years.

Through her website, she looks forward to connecting with other like-minded people from around the world who share a similar vision. You can also follow Carolanne on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Further reading from Carolanne Wright:


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